Asylum seekers and activists tell Al Jazeera how government-linked translators have infiltrated the immigration system.

2 hours ago
Italy received around 59,000 Eritreans between 2015 and 2016 [Courtesy: Meron Estefanos]
Italy received around 59,000 Eritreans between 2015 and 2016 [Courtesy: Meron Estefanos]

Rome, Italy - It was a warm Mediterranean day in October 2013 when Meron Estefanos got the news.

A boat had sunk off the Italian island of Lampedusa and several hundred refugees had drowned. In the end, the death toll would rise to 360.

Most on board were Eritrean.

Estefanos, a Swedish-Eritrean journalist and activist, and Father Mussie Zerai, a Catholic priest, both well-known refugee advocates, rushed to Palermo central police station in Sicily.

There, they were told Italian authorities would help them identify the living and dead for the refugees' families back home.


But when they entered the building, they were shocked to find it filled with representatives of the Eritrean government.

"These people fled from that government, and there they are sitting there," Estefanos tells Al Jazeera.

"People that we know, European leaders of Eritrean-affiliated organisations, were sitting at the [police headquarters] and registering people's names."

The pair complained, and the representatives were eventually removed.

You are asking for protection from the government and you find somebody who is translating your story ... and you know that he is government himself. You understand how frightening is this?

Siid Negash, Coordinamento Eritrea Democratica spokesperson

But five years on, Eritreans and activists say that President Isaias Afewerki's government has extended its tentacles into Europe's immigration services.

Simon Rezene, an interpreter and spokesperson for the East African Refugees group, estimates that more than half of the interpreters working with Italy's immigration services are hired by the Eritrean government.

Estefanos puts that figure at 80 percent, across Europe.

Human rights groups often compare the level of freedom in Eritrea to that of North Korea; both governments conscript citizens into indefinite military service and arbitrarily imprison and execute opponents.

"When you arrive, you are asking for asylum," Siid Negash, a spokesman for the Coordinamento Eritrea Democratica NGO, tells Al Jazeera.

"You are asking for protection from the government and you find somebody who is translating your story, everything you know, everything that you have to say about the government, and you know that he is government himself. You understand how frightening is this?"

Interpreters are responsible for communicating refugees' testimonies at Italian asylum hearings and at relocation interviews for transfer within the EU.

Relocation interviews are overseen by an EU agency, the European Asylum Support Office (EASO), and it is here that some Eritrean asylum seekers in Italy say they have experienced intimidation, threats against their family members in Eritrea, and mistranslation of their testimonies.

When translating, these interpreters leave out accounts of experiences such as torture, so that asylum seekers are awarded a lesser degree of refugee protection. This gives the Eritrean embassy greater control over their lives.

The Eritrean embassy in Rome refused Al Jazeera's request for comment.

'The only choice is silence'

Tesfahewet is a 40-year-old refugee in Sweden who escaped Eritrea in 2015 after 19 years of military service.

He says his suspicions about interpreters at his first two relocation interviews in Italy were confirmed when he researched the transcripts online and found that the translators had made statements in support of the government.

You maybe make a risk for your family inside Eritrea. The only choice is silence.

Tesfahewet, Eritrean asylum seeker

At the time of the interviews, he followed his instincts and kept quiet, revealing as little information as possible.

Later, after making informal enquiries, he was put in touch with an interpreter who local activists said was trustworthy.

It was then that he gave his full testimony.

If you tell your story to an interpreter whose loyalties are unknown, "you maybe make a risk for your family inside Eritrea", he says. "The only choice is silence."

Campaigners say government-linked interpreters do little to hide their alliances, often posting photographs online of themselves attending European conferences organised by the youth branch of the ruling People's Front for Democracy and Justice party, or YPFDJ, and organising counter-protests when diaspora groups demonstrate against the Eritrean government.

Activists have reported the issue several times to Italian authorities, EASO, and NGOs, but their complaints have been ignored.

Most organisations do not employ interpreters directly but subcontract the work out to cooperatives such as the Interpreters and Translators Cooperative (ITC) in Rome.

This, campaigners say, makes it easy to pass the buck when it comes to vetting candidates.

In May 2016, Father Zerai and a colleague say they met with the Italian Interior Ministry's chief of staff, Mario Morcone, to highlight the problem and deliver a list of reliable interpreters.

But no changes were made and two follow-up emails in October 2016 went unanswered.

Morcone's office did not respond to Al Jazeera's repeated requests for comment.

In a September 2017 meeting in Rome with EASO, Eritreans raised the issue of the agency's alleged use of government-linked interpreters, according to Rezene, the interpreter and activist.

At the agency's instruction, Rezene followed up by email shortly after, but by the start of 2018, he still had not received a response.

EASO told Al Jazeera that one interpreter subsequently resigned following an investigation, but added that this was not necessarily proof of the allegations.

The Interpreters and Translators Cooperative company told Al Jazeera that its contractors sign a code of conduct requiring them to declare conflicts of interest and agree to interpret faithfully.

Its interpreters have been cleared by the Italian police, ITC said.

EASO has asked ITC to "investigate the matter in order to ensure that there are absolutely no violations of any rights", the agency said.

Europe-wide issue?

The government's network of interpreters is not confined to Italy, but is active across Europe, according to Father Zerai.

In 2016, it was reported that interpreters allied with the Eritrean government had infiltrated Germany's immigration services in Germany - an allegation German authorities denied.

In 2015, Dutch immigration services were forced to reform after University of Tilburg international relations professor Mirjam van Reisen said in a radio interview that they employed two siblings of YPFDJ leader Meseret Bahlbi as interpreters.

Bahlbi sued the professor for defamation, but she won the 2016 court case and 2017 appeal.

In January of this year, the Netherlands expelled its top Eritrean diplomat for repeatedly breaking the country's laws by extorting an illegal two percent diaspora tax from refugees.

Father Zerai says translators hold great responsibility for the future of asylum seekers [Elaine Allaby/Al Jazeera]

But Italy, as the gateway to Europe for increasing numbers of African asylum seekers and recipient of more than 59,000 Eritreans between 2015 and 2016 according to Ministry of Interior records, is in a conflicted position.

While Eritrea is widely regarded as a pariah state, in recent years both Italy and the EU have made concessions to the government in an effort to reduce mass emigration to Europe and keep anti-immigrant factions at bay.

In 2014, Lapo Pistelli, who was then deputy foreign minister, dismayed Eritrean advocacy groups by travelling to the country's capital of Asmara to meet with President Afewerki in a stated bid to improve bilateral relations.

In late 2015, the EU approved a 200m-euro aid package to Eritrea on the basis that the government would limit its compulsory military service to 18 months and pay conscripts a living wage - conditions Aweferki is said to have completely ignored.

If you are a translator, you have in your hand the life of that person. We can't joke with the life of the people.

Father Zerai, priest and activist for refugees

"All Western democracy is facing a huge crisis," says Martin Plaut, former BBC Africa editor and author of Understanding Eritrea.

"They know perfectly well that it's an utterly repressive regime. But you know, how important is all this information against the rise of the populist right, which is going to kick you out of office?" he told Al Jazeera.

Against this background, Eritrean refugees in Europe are worried that their basic safety has been de-prioritised and the government has effectively been given free rein to spy on its people.

"The authorities have a big responsibility in this issue," says Father Zerai.

In 2015, Father Zerai was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in assisting migrants and in 2017, Italian authorities suspected him of aiding and abbetting illegal immigration for his work.

"If you are a translator, you have in your hand the life of that person. We can't joke with the life of the people."

            SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


Asmorom is one of around 80 refugees who undertook the dangerous journey to Europe via Libya, after being relocated by Israel.

Asmorom, 28, hugs a UNHCR cultural mediator outside Rome’s Termini train station.  © UNHCR/Alessandro Penso

ROME, Italy – Asmorom was just 18 when he fled Eritrea in 2007. It would take three years and many violent beatings by people smugglers for him to find a safe place to call home in Israel – only for his world to come crashing down once more.

Granted a temporary visa in Israel for four months, Asmorom was forced to continuously renew it. He also struggled to fit in. Without the right to work, he was vulnerable and exploited, ekeing out a living with odd jobs for meagre pay.

“I had no contact with the community,” he recalls. “I had no Israeli friends and was not given the opportunity to study and learn the language.”

Despite this, Asmorom struggled on in Israel for five years, until one day the authorities told him that his visa would not be renewed. This gave him three options: being placed in a detention facility for an undetermined period of time, being returned to Eritrea or being transferred to Rwanda.

“I was given no information.”

UNHCR recently appealed to Israel to halt its policy of relocating Eritreans and Sudanese to sub-Saharan Africa. This is after around 80 cases were identified in which people relocated by Israel risked their lives by taking dangerous onward journeys to Europe via Libya.

Knowing he would face imprisonment or worse if he was returned to Eritrea, Asmorom had little choice but to accept the transfer to Rwanda.

He was given US$ 3,500 by Israeli authorities as part of the relocation scheme. Then, once in Rwanda, he and the nine other Eritrean refugees he had been travelling with were met by local authorities and transferred to a hotel.

“I was given no information, my Israeli documents were taken from me and I received nothing, no papers, no explanation whatsoever on what was going to happen,” says Asmorom. “I was scared. The word on the street was that we were not safe in the hotel because everyone knew that refugees coming from Israel were carrying large sums of money. We stayed one night, and then the whole group decided to leave and run to Uganda.”

In Italy, Asmorom received refugee status and is currently enrolled in language school.  © UNHCR/Alessandro Penso

In October 2015, Asmorom was once more in the hands of smugglers, who took him from Uganda to Sudan. In Sudan, he married and stayed for a few months, but knew he could not stay without documents or security. In May 2016, he left his wife behind for her own safety and departed towards Libya.

“In front of me was the Sahara for the second time,” he says. “I knew very well I could die, but I wanted freedom and peace and decided to cross again”.

In the middle of the desert, Asmorom and the group he was traveling with were kidnapped and taken to Kufrah, Libya. He was forced to pay US$ 1,800 to get to Tripoli, and there asked for an additional US$ 5,500. When he could not pay, he was taken to a warehouse where 1,500 refugees and migrants were kept in one large room.

“It is difficult to describe the conditions we were kept in. Try to imagine 1,500 people living, eating, sleeping and defecating in one large room. The food we were given was simply not enough and my friends and I were already debilitated from all these years of trying to survive, from Israel and from the crossing.”

“It is difficult to describe the conditions.”

“We were ill and we were hungry. Two of my friends did not survive, I watched them die in the warehouse. This for me is very difficult to talk about – I still cannot sleep at night because of this”.

In October 2016, Asmorom finally made it to the coast and set sail for Italy. Crossing the Mediterranean Sea in a small wooden boat with 800 people on board almost felt easy compared to the ordeal he had been through for seven years.

The boat was rescued by an NGO and its passengers disembarked in a port near Naples, Italy. “The moment I arrived to Italy I knew I no longer had to live in fear,” says Asmorom. “I had gambled with life and survived.”

In Italy, Asmorom received refugee status and is currently enrolled in language school, determined to find his place in society and hoping to be reunited with his wife. However, he says he will never be able to put what he has been through behind him.

“I would like for my friends names to be written down,” he says. “Ibra and Tesfalem were their names, they would be 28 today. It is only because I survived that their families were able to find out what happened to their sons.”

“So many people are unaccounted for. The families still call me today, as they could not get the bodies back, and for closure they ask me for information – Were they sick? Were they given food? Were they beaten? It is for them that I am telling my story and I would like for as many people as possible to know what has happened.”


February 16, 2018 06:25

Thursday’s ruling may provide a respite for thousands of men who received deportation notices earlier this month.

African asylum seekers line up to apply for a visa in Bnei Brak, Israel


African asylum seekers line up to apply for a visa in Bnei Brak, Israel. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Thursday’s ruling by a special appeals court that Eritreans who fled forced military service are now eligible for refugee status could prove to be a lifeline for thousands of the 20,000 men slated for deportation to an unknown third African country beginning April 1.

Noting that Eritrean army deserters make up over half of the 28,000 Eritreans presently living in Israel who were previously denied asylum, Ori Lahat, CEO of the African Refugee Development Center, deemed the ruling a “game changer.”

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While most Western nations have long considered conscription conditions in Eritrea to be slave-like and inhumane, Israel has refused to recognize it as such, instead derisively referring to those who fled its military as “evaders” and “infiltrators.”

“This was an important issue because in the Western world, if you look at the percentages, it was obvious in almost all the countries there that Eritreans who fled the military qualified for asylum – except in Israel,” Lahat said.

“This ruling is very relevant to the majority of asylum-seekers in Israel because the main claim by the majority of Eritreans was abusive military conditions. Thousands of these men were previously denied asylum out of hand, and those who are denied asylum are being deported, and now their cases can be reopened.”

To date, the Interior Ministry’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority has only reviewed 6,500 of the 15,000 African asylum requests submitted since 2013. Among the 6,500 it has reviewed, 10 Eritreans and one Sudanese national have been granted asylum status.

It remains unclear how many of the remaining 8,500 applicants are Eritreans who fled the military. Currently, there are approximately 38,000 Eritrean and Sudanese migrants living in Israel. The vast majority have been sequestered in ghettos in impoverished south Tel Aviv.

According to Lahat, Thursday’s ruling may provide a respite for thousands of men who received deportation notices earlier this month.

“For the moment, at least, we will have to see how to stop them from being deported because it shows the intent of the government of Israel to send deportation letters even though it knows that their cases should be reopened,” he said.

“The government knew that most countries accepted Eritrean army desertion as a qualification for refugee status, and [Israel] should not have been the one country that was different from all the others. So, I think it shows that Israel’s intent was to deport as many people as possible.”

In Canada, the US and EU nearly 90% of Eritreans qualify for asylum, while in Israel the acceptance rate is a fraction of a percent.
The appeal court’s ruling, Lahat said, warrants cautious optimism.

“This is a serious game changer, and we know there will probably be a next round because the government will appeal the ruling, but for now it is a big win,” he said.

MK Michal Rozin (Meretz) echoed Lahat’s contention that the ruling is evidence of the government’s biased asylum system.
“Today’s ruling is further proof that the asylum-screening system in Israel is failing and biased,” she said. “This is an important decision of the appeals court, which proves the lies of the government. For years, asylum applications for Eritrean refugees have been automatically rejected, unlike other countries in the world that recognize them as refugees.”

Accordingly, Rozin demanded that the expulsion process should be stopped since it contravenes the 1951 Refugee Convention, of which Israel was among the first signatories.

“The deportation process must be stopped immediately,” she said. “The State of Israel must reconsider the requests of Eritrean asylum seekers rejected by it – a decision now ruled by the court, which determined that it was not in accordance with the international standard required by the UN Refugee Convention.”

Meanwhile, Yonatan Jakubowicz of the Israeli Immigration Policy Center, which opposes the absorption of African refugees, said “the majority of evaders from national service in Eritrea are not refugees by the Geneva Convention standards.”

“According to multiple reports and sources, a great portion can return to Eritrea with no fear of reprisal if done so from their own volition, and after paying a 2% tax on their earnings while abroad,” he said on Thursday.

“Among these sources is a recent report by the European Asylum Support Office, an official European Commission think tank, and information from the Israeli Interior Ministry, proving that over 2,000 Eritrean migrants – many of whom are national service evaders – have chosen to return to Eritrea from Israel of their own volition,” he added.

South African President Jacob Zuma resigns under pressure from ANC

South African President Jacob Zuma attends a session during the 30th annual African Union summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Jan. 28. Zuma resigned Wednesday. (Simon Maina / AFP/Getty Images)

South African President Jacob Zuma bowed to intense pressure from his party and resigned Wednesday, ending nearly nine years of rule marred by corruption scandals and fiscal mismanagement that shamed the party of Nelson Mandela and inflicted serious damage on one of Africa's biggest economies.

The 75-year-old leader's approval ratings had been sinking along with those of his ruling party, the African National Congress. In the end, the party turned against him and sided with his deputy, Cyril Ramaphosa, who unseated Zuma as party president in December and now becomes acting president of the country.

The ANC national executive committee issued Zuma an ultimatum Monday: resign or be recalled from office.

Zuma, who had already been resisting pressure from party leaders to quit, remained defiant at first. On Wednesday, he went on television and, in a lengthy statement, insisted that he had done nothing wrong.

"What is the rush? I have been asking this question all the time," he told SABC television. "You can't force a decision as is being done now."

"It's the first time that I feel the leadership is unfair," Zuma said. "It's 'No, you must just go.' The ANC does not run things that way. It's a kind of ANC that I begin to feel that there's something wrong here."

But late Wednesday, Zuma backed down and in a television address announced his decision to resign.

"I do not fear exiting political office," he said. "However, I have only asked my party to articulate my transgressions and the reason for its immediate decision that I vacate office."

He insisted the decision to dismiss him was unjustified, but said he decided to resign in order to avoid violence between members of the ANC.

"I am forever indebted to the ANC, the liberation movement I have served almost all my life," he said. "I respect each member and leader of this glorious movement. I have served the people of South Africa to the best of my ability. I am forever grateful that they trusted me with the highest office in the land."

Ramaphosa, now the acting president, is expected to be elected president at a meeting of the ANC parliamentary caucus in coming days.

Zuma had been due to leave office when his term ended in 2019. But Ramaphosa and his supporters wanted Zuma out well in advance of next year's presidential election in hopes that the ANC would have time to rebuild its support.

The opposition Democratic Alliance had said any departure deal should be made public and threatened to go to court if Zuma was given immunity from prosecution on corruption charges he is trying to fend off.

Zuma rose to power on the important role he played in the struggle against apartheid and on his charisma, often rousing party supporters, dancing and singing his trademark apartheid-era struggle song "Bring Me My Machine Gun." He ended a depleted figure, booed at party gatherings.

His method of governing — using the law to go after enemies, and state contracts and government jobs to enrich allies — is common in many African countries. But many South Africans, including sections of the ANC, were horrified at the scope of the scandals that followed him.

Soon after taking office in 2009, Zuma upgraded his mansion in the coastal province of Kwazulu-Natal, charging the state for "security upgrades," including a swimming pool, a visitor's center and an amphitheater. He was eventually forced to pay back $600,000 to the government.

Less than a year into his presidency, family members and friends had accumulated scores of companies, getting rich on the patronage that his political machine lavished.

Lawmakers and government officials have alleged that a powerful business family used its friendship with the president to manipulate cabinet appointments. Critics say the Gupta family — which has joint ventures with one of Zuma's sons, Duduzane Zuma, and has employed two other Zuma family members — "captured" the state in an effort to advance its commercial interests, which include mining, media and aviation.

The family and Zuma have denied the allegations.

In a sign that the political winds have shifted, a police anti-corruption unit known as the Hawks raided the home of the Guptas on Wednesday. The Hawks confirmed three arrests had been made and said two other people had agreed to hand themselves over to police.

The arrests related to a dairy farm project in the Free State province that was supposed to direct money to poor black South Africans. Instead, almost all the money is alleged to have been used to pay for a Gupta family wedding.

Under Zuma, many of the people shuffled into government jobs were unqualified, ill-equipped or corrupt. He drew widespread criticism in 2016 when he dismissed a reputable finance minister, Nhlanhla Nene, and tried to install a former mayor of a small municipality with little experience in finance.

That same year, a Chinese rhino horn trafficker claimed in a television documentary that he "did business" with the wife of David Mahlobo, a former state security minister and close Zuma ally. He claimed Mahlobo was his friend and displayed cellphone photos of them together.

Mahlobo denied either he or his wife had any connection with the trafficker and was never investigated. He remains in the cabinet as minister for energy. Zuma had been promoting a controversial $83-billion nuclear power plan that Ramaphosa says the country cannot afford.

The proposed deal with Russia was pushed hard by Zuma and Mahlobo, with critics accusing the government of undue haste in pursuing the deal.

Zuma was tainted by scandal even before voters elected him. He had been accused of rape, then acquitted, and charged with making over 783 allegedly corrupt payments as deputy president before prosecutors dropped the charges weeks before the 2009 election, clearing his way to become president after the vote.

But, popular in the party, he overcame the political damage from those episodes with a personal story that made him a hero in the fight against apartheid.

He grew up illiterate, forced to herd cattle as a child instead of going to school, after the death of his father, a policeman. His mother left him in the care of relatives and went to the city of Durban to earn money as a maid, and he began to teach himself to read, using other children's school books.

He joined the ANC in 1959 and was jailed for 10 years on Robben Island with Mandela, who went on to become the nation's first black president. Zuma never received a visitor; his mother was too poor to travel to see him.

Upon release, he rose through the ranks of the ANC to head the intelligence arm of its military wing.

His history and his outsized personality propelled him to the leadership of the party. He was a populist who exuded charm and warmth, unlike former President Thabo Mbeki, the cool and remote successor to Mandela.


The pressure for Zuma to step aside began to mount last fall after a court ordered the reinstatement of corruption charges that had been dropped in 2009 — a decision he is now fighting — and the deepening scandals over the influence of the Gupta family.

Increasing that pressure were the effects of fiscal mismanagement.

Last year, global credit rating agencies downgraded South Africa's debt rating to junk. State-owned enterprises piled up debt, requiring repeated bailouts. Recently the finance minister warned that electricity provider Eskom was in such bad shape that it could topple the entire South African economy.

Zuma lost control of the party at a national conference in December, failing in a bid to ensure his ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, succeeded him in a move designed to shield him from prosecution.

Instead Ramaphosa narrowly won the presidency of the party and the right to succeed Zuma as the nation's president if the ANC wins parliamentary elections next year. In South Africa, the majority party in parliament elects the president.

Zuma also lost control of the ANC's national executive committee, the only party body with the power to fire him — or in the parlance of the party, "recall" him.

Ramaphosa had started turning against his boss last year, telling a radio interviewer that he believed the president was guilty of rape, despite his 2006 acquittal.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last month, Ramaphosa said that South Africa had been captured by corrupt elements close to Zuma.

As the sense of crisis deepened, the national currency surged at every suggestion Zuma would go.

His decision to resign saved the ANC the embarrassing spectacle of voting with opposition parties in parliament to oust him. The party had supported him in past no-confidence votes.

Zuma had been scheduled to deliver the state of the nation speech to parliament last Thursday. The address will now be delivered by Ramaphosa on Friday evening, after he is elected president that morning, the ANC has said.

After several days of negotiations between Ramaphosa and Zuma, the party's executive committee met in a marathon 13-hour session Monday to decide the issue. A letter of recall was delivered to Zuma by the party Tuesday.

Zuma is not the first South African president to be forced out of office. In a power play orchestrated by Zuma supporters, Mbeki resigned in 2008 after he was "recalled" by the executive committee, nine months before his term was due to end.

Many hope that Ramaphosa will clear out corruption in the ANC by appointing a strong chief of the National Prosecution Authority and empowering that person to go after powerful figures in the party — even at the risk of losing some key political allies.


Twitter: @RobynDixon_LAT


2 p.m.: This article was updated with details of Jacob Zuma's resignation speech.

This article was originally published at 1:05 p.m.




Israel wants to deport 40,000 Africans. Many who left found misery at their destination, and a deadly journey to Europe their only escape

 ly journey to Europe their only escape

African migrants demonstrate against forced deportation in Herzlia, Israel, on 7 February (AFP)
Tessa Fox's picture
Last update: 
Monday 12 February 2018 13:44 UTC


TEL AVIV - The group of 30 asylum seekers are crammed into the back of several Toyota utility vehicles, as they speed across the Sahara. 

The passengers have paid smugglers thousands of dollars to get out of Sudan and into Europe, but their journey has been treacherous - and for some already deadly.

With no water to get them through the the scorching, stifling heat, many die, as their friends watch in horror. But according to Kiflom, an Eritrean who was among the group, none of the drivers could care.

"Why should we care? God willing you will die too," Kiflom is told by one of the drivers.

They tried to cross to Europe, but a lot died in the Sahara, then in Libya, and then more on the Mediterranean 

- Sheshai, Eritrean refugee in Holot prison, Israel

Kiflom was one of the few who survived, and eventually made it to Italy. But his journey began when he left Israel in April 2016 under its so-called "voluntary departure" programme, which moves unwanted African migrants to a third country with promises of financial support and official refugee status at their destination.

But many of the thousands of mainly Sudanese and Eritreans who left between 2014 and 2016 found their new hosts to be less than welcoming, the promised support failing to materialise, and escape to Europe their only chance of a better life. For many, it was also their death sentence.

Horror stories such as these, contained in a report by the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, Better a prison in Israel than dying on the way, are being used as a warning for 40,000 African migrants and asylum seekers still in Israel. 

Under a draconian acceleration of the old 'voluntary' scheme in January they were given two options: mandatory deportation within 60 days, or indefinite detention in Israel.

Sheshai, also an Eritrean, considers this options from a cell in the Holot detention centre, southern Israel. He has lived in the country for eight years, but was sent to Holot five months ago. He now has less than a month to decide his future.

"A lot of friends left Israel," he told Middle East Eye. "They tried to cross to Europe, but a lot of people died in the Sahara, then a lot of people died in Libya, and then more on the Mediterranean.

"We prefer to stay in prison," he says, although he paints a grim picture of what that means: "We don't have anything, every day we sleep. We [just] have a phone, we use it for internet. We walk around the prison, to de-stress."

A dream turns to a nightmare

Indeed the stories from the other side, from those who have already left, is almost exclusively one of confusion, broken promises, and often death. 

Many are marooned without support and find themselves quickly on the move, crossing the borders of one failed state after another - including South Sudan and Libya - before betting everything on a boat to Europe.

Haile and Isayas, who both left under the voluntary scheme, told the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants that the support promised by Israel never materialised.

Both were given $3,500 and tickets to Rwanda, but from there they were on their own.

Isayas told the migrant hotline: "Israel says you can get documents and receive asylum and that you'll have a good life, like a dream."

But on landing in Rwanda's capital, Kigali, Isayas's documents were confiscated and he was led to a "hotel" where he and other migrants were watched by guards to ensure they didn't leave.

All in Isayas group "stayed in the hotel for a few days before being smuggled to Uganda".

Haile's money disappeared fast, and the last of his funds was used to pay smugglers to get him across the Mediterranean. He was one of the lucky ones: surviving the crossing, he found sanctuary in the Netherlands, where he lives now under refugee status.

African migrants stand behind barbed wire at the Holot detention centre (AFP)

No refugee status

The promises of refugee status were also often broken by the third country. Dawit, another voluntary departure, told HRM he was denied access to UNHCR, the UN's refugee agency.

"We said we want to go to the UNHCR, but they tell us 'no, no, no... If you do not move to another country we will return [you] to your country'."

Feeling "scared, pressured and insecure", Dawit crossed from Rwanda to Uganda after paying people-smugglers with money given to him by Israel.

Andie Lambe, the executive director of International Refugee Rights Initiative, has studied the plight of asylum seekers moved from Israel to Uganda under the 'voluntary deportation' programme.

Read more ►

African migrants in Israel opt for jail over deportation

Lambe said many were taken to a hotel on arrival, "where they could stay for free for two nights", before being left to fend for themselves.

Not one of those she had dealt with were ever granted refugee status - and many told Lambe they were told not to "bother trying" to apply.

"There is a responsibility on the Israeli state to make sure this is happening, if they are going to put that promise in their communications with potential deportees," she said.

Many left high and dry in Uganda found their way to South Sudan, a country itself in the grip of civil war and starvation and where millions of its own civilians had been forced from their homes.

Lambe said the deportees from Israel found themselves there as a direct result of getting nothing from the government of Uganda.

A UN vehicle guards civilians in South Sudan, which has been torn apart by civil war (AFP)

Gabriel, one of those who moved into South Sudan, described how he and others got there.

"All the way with no water, nothing. I don't want to repeat this. It was very hard. We were in the car for almost three days... With goats and sheep, we hid on top," Gabriel tried to explain his journey.

On reaching the border, Gabriel and the other asylum seekers had to each pay $2,000 to cross.

Think about the people who left Israel to have a better life and did not make it

- Isayas, Eritrean refugee

Once in the capital of Juba, the Eritrean asylum seekers felt most at risk from South Sudanese rebels due to connections between the government of South Sudan and Eritrea.

Feeling in constant danger of being deported back to Eritrea, as well as being robbed and imprisoned for months due to not having identification, the asylum seekers moved north to Sudan.

However, many were picked up by Sudan's government, which works with Eritrea to return asylum seekers, many of whom have fled forced, life-long conscription to its army.

Samson was one of those scooped up by Sudanese police. After paying a bribe for his freedom, he found many of his friends had already been sent back to their home country.

"Now where are they? I don't know… [maybe] they will die in Eritrea."

African migrants attempt the crossing to Europe (AFP)

Libya's horror

What came next for those who escaped was even worse: Libya.

The journey to Libya haunts the asylum seekers who survived. "At night it comes to us in our head, it repeats… It wakes me up, what I saw… I don't want to remember this… I want to close that door," Kiflom, who survived the desert crossing, told HRM.

Many were placed in overcrowded warehouses for months. In rooms of up to 1,500 people, they were subject to rape, daily violence, slavery, and no food or water.

Like other prisons they had been in, ransoms were required for escape. "Those who did not have money stay longer." Many died.

The asylum seekers could only get on boats to Italy when the smugglers had found at least 500 people wanting go. Overloaded, the motors on the boats broke.

"We went 500 people into the sea, and out of them returned just maybe 100 people… From Israel there were 10 people on the boat, and we got out only three, you understand? Seven people died," Tesfay, a survivor, told HRM.

They know they have no work permits. They hear the stories, they're not ignorant.

- Dror Sadot, Hotline for Refugees and Migrants

Isayas is thankful he survived. He lives now in Italy. But he will never stop thinking of the people who died.

"Think about the people who left Israel to have a better life and did not make it," he said.

Dror Sadot, a spokesman from HRM, told Middle East Eye that such stories would always get back to those awaiting deportation.

"They know what happened to their friends, when they left Rwanda or Uganda, they know many died on the way.

"They know they have no work permits. They hear the stories, they're not ignorant."

Of those left, Dror Sadot said many believe they will not be imprisoned for long by Israel, and it's better to wait it out.

Sheshai has hope the High Court in Israel will reverse the governments plan to deport them. "I hope a lot of people in Israel stand with us, with refugees," he said.



February 11, 2018

The Red Sea is becoming host to three distinct but loosely linked theatres of competition.

Workers stand as a ship unloads its shipment of grain at the Red Sea port of Hodeida, on December 24.    (Reuters)
Collision course? Workers stand as a ship unloads its shipment of grain at the Red Sea port of Hodeida, on December 24. (Reuters)

International interest in and around the Red Sea is intensifying, bringing increased geopolitical competition.

To the north, the Suez Canal links the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean and represents a crucial maritime trade route, transporting about 2.5% of global oil shipments, Global said.

At the other end, the Bab el Mandeb Strait — one of the world’s most important chokepoints, only 29km wide at its narrowest point — com­mands the southern entrance. It has taken on added geostrategic importance since the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen began in 2015.

Further south is the Horn of Africa, a hotbed of maritime piracy that prompted navies from around the world to form task forces to fight it.

The Red Sea’s enhanced geostrategic importance is driving unprecedented development and competition. Last year, China boosted its power projection capabilities by inaugurating a nearly $600 million naval base in Djibouti. The newest entrant is Turkey, which recently signed an agreement with Sudan to develop a port at Suakin.

China and Turkey will join the United States, which has operated its only full-fledged expeditionary military base on Africa, Camp Lemonnier, also in Djibouti, since 2002, as well as the French, Italian and Japanese forces.

Saudi Arabia has been running operations with coalition allies out of a base in Assab, Eritrea. The United Arab Emirates has a military presence in Yemeni Red Sea ports of Aden, Mokha and Mukalla as well as the island of Perim in Assab, and in Berbera in autonomous Somaliland. Last year, Turkey opened a military base in Somalia to train Somali forces.

The Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen has necessitated Arab Gulf countries locking off maritime supply routes to Houthi rebels and developing a supporting logistics network for operations. The Saudi-led coalition has been wary of providing Houthi rebels space to blockade or disrupt maritime traffic by mining and anti-ship weapons from the Yemeni coast, especially around the Bab el Mandeb.

Such burgeoning international interest in and around the Red Sea in the absence of a formal regional framework is straining the environment as a growing number of stakeholders seek to safeguard their interests by counterbalancing competitors. As such the Red Sea is becoming host to three distinct but loosely linked theatres of competition.

At the global level, the rise of China has been driving international competition. The Chinese want to safeguard freedom of navigation for key maritime trade routes and massive investments into Africa as part of its One Belt, One Road Initiative. The United States wants the regional security landscape preserved favourably, especially with Israel being in close proximity but also against terrorist threats and to counter a rising China and resurgent Russia.

The Saudi-led coalition is seeking to ease the socio-political instability that has been taking hold around Saudi Arabia’s periphery in good part by counterbalancing the regional footprint of Iran, which supports the Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Finally, there is the north-east African geopolitical competition. Egypt has strained relations with Sudan, which Cairo charges with supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt opposes Sudan-backed Ethiopian plans for the Renaissance Dam under construction since 2011. When finished it will be Africa’s largest hydro-electric power station and generate much-needed electricity for Ethiopia and Sudan but reduce water flows to Egypt’s Nile.

Sudan, like Ethiopia, has been the subject of investments and support from Qatar. Egypt views a potential emerging pro-Muslim Brotherhood alliance between Turkey, Qatar and Sudan as an incubating threat. Sudan recalled its ambassador to Egypt following reports Egypt had dispatched troops to Eritrea, which borders Sudan, in response to the announcement of Turkey’s Suakin agreement.

Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel, Egypt, Sudan, Djibouti, Eritrea and Somalia all border the Red Sea or its entry points but a growing number of extra-regional powers are moving in swiftly to safeguard their interests.

Some analysts say the Red Sea basin was previously overlooked for its strategic value. Being part Middle East and part Africa, it was approached in a segmented way. The absence of a multilateral regional framework to manage affairs or disputes in the Red Sea is probably a key reason why outside powers have been able to formalise their own presence and, ironically, may be making its emergence even less likely.

Written By Sabahat Khan

Sabahat Khan is a senior analyst at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA).


Vol 59 No 3

Published 9th February 2018

Two Middle Eastern power blocs are buying friends and influence in the Horn but further damaging prospects for stability there

Saudi Arabia's and the United Arab Emirates' military dealmaking in the Horn of Africa is deepening rivalries in a region already overflowing with arms. This year, there has been a flurry of diplomatic missions and in-camera meetings at the African Union about tensions triggered by the growing foreign military presence in the Horn. Gulf states see the area bordering the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden as their sphere of influence, militarily and commercially.

Map Copyright © Africa Confidential 2018

Now the conservative Gulf monarchies, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in alliance with Egypt, are boosting their presence in the Horn as part of their competition with Qatar and Turkey, whom they lambast as leading supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates in the region. The immediate reason for Saudi Arabia and the UAE striking a series of military cooperation deals with Eritrea, Djibouti, Somaliland and Somalia was to strengthen their position in the civil war across the Red Sea in Yemen

Saudi Arabia and the UAE's campaign against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen has been going badly. They want to use bases in the Horn in support of their bid to take control of the Yemeni coastline, cut the rebels' supply lines, and intensify aerial and naval attacks from the south. Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan all have troops fighting alongside Saudi Arabia in Yemen.

Sudan, whose Islamist regime under President Omer Hassan Ahmed el Beshir has been trying to suppress protests about rising food prices, is struggling to maintain functional relations with both the Saudi and Qatari blocs. Khartoum is in a serious dispute with Egypt over the Hala'ib Triangle, a 21,000-square-kilometre area both countries claim (AC Vol 54 No 25, Cape to Cairo, again).

In the 1990s, Egypt deployed its military in the triangle. There the issue might have rested, had not Cairo come to an agreement with Saudi Arabia to hand over two Red Sea islands, Tiran and Sanafir (AC Vol 57 No 14, Red Sea wrangles). The agreement, which caused nationalist fury in Egypt, also redrew the maritime border between the two countries and unilaterally imposed Egyptian sovereignty over the Hala'ib Triangle. Sudan reacted in December last year, sending a letter to the United Nations rejecting the deal and recalling its ambassador to Cairo.

Eritrea win
Meanwhile, Ethiopia is racked by dissent among its nationalities, its leaders divided over how many of its thousands of detainees to set free. Eritrea is wrestling with an exodus of young people desperate to escape the notoriously repressive conscription regime. Into this morass have stepped Saudi Arabia and the UAE as they seek regional political, military and diplomatic support for their war in Yemen against the Houthis.

The biggest beneficiary of the conservative Gulf Arab alliance has been President Issayas Afewerki, who has gained an unexpected lifeline in return for providing logistical facilities. This is a blow to Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somalia, which had previously succeeded in isolating Eritrea and preventing it from meddling in their internal affairs, mainly through a UN arms embargo and a limited sanctions regime in place since 2009.

Asmara Airport has been renovated and the Eritrean port of Assab is now a military base leased to the Saudis and the UAE from which they prosecute their war in Yemen. The UAE has taken Yemeni prisoners to Assab to be interrogated and tortured, according to human rights activists. Eritreans in Yemen report the presence of up to 400 Eritrean troops fighting alongside the Saudi-led alliance.

It was against this background that Issayas went on a two-day visit to Egypt on 9-10 January. His talks with President Abdel Fattah el Sisi are reported to have centred on economic ties and what were described as 'regional and international topics of mutual importance'. Communiqués spoke of a mutual interest in a bilateral strategic partnership. The cementing of its relationship with Egypt is one of the biggest rewards for Asmara for accommodating the Gulf regimes.

For Egypt, there is potential profit in Asmara's fierce enmity with Ethiopia, whose Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is causing Cairo deep concern. The flow of the Nile into Egypt – source of nearly all its water – could be reduced, depending on how quickly Ethiopia decides to fill the 10.74 billion cubic-metre reservoir for the still uncompleted dam (AC Vol 58 No 3, Eritrea's unsettling alliance). Egypt is belatedly attempting to make up some of the expected deficit by commissioning a desalination plant, but this is expensive technology and it will take years to build.

Regional foil
Egypt has used Eritrea as a strategic counterbalance to Ethiopia since the 1950s. It hosted the Eritrean Liberation Movement, the precursor of the guerrilla groups which eventually expelled Ethiopia and established Eritrea as an independent state in 1993. In recent years Ethiopia has accused Eritrea of hosting rebels bent on attacking the GERD. In March 2017 Ethiopia said Eritrea was behind an unsuccessful attempt by the Benishangul Gumuz People's Liberation Movement to raid the dam. Eritrea denied the accusation. Later that year 150 members of the same group defected to Ethiopia and accused the Eritreans of instructing them to sabotage the dam.

On the day of the Issayas/El Sisi meeting, the Qatar-based Al Jazeera television news channel claimed that Egypt had 'sent hundreds of its troops to a UAE base in Eritrea, on the border with Sudan'. The channel said the deployment was a response to Turkey expanding its influence in the region by establishing a military base at the ancient Sudanese port of Suakin, even though the UAE base in Assab is 700 kilometres from Sudan as the crow flies, and much further by road.

A pro-Muslim Brotherhood media outlet, the London-based Middle East Monitor, went further, alleging that Egypt was training Eritreans at its military academy at Sawa, close to the Sudanese border. These reports were dismissed by the Eritrean Minister of Information, Yemane Gebremeskel, who tweeted: 'Al Jazeera News Channel seems to relish propagating false and preposterous news on Eritrea.' Al Jazeera is caught up in Doha's larger struggle with Saudi Arabia, which included scaling back the television channel among its 13 demands on Qatar when it launched its dispute with Doha last June.

Sudan is navigating these competing blocs. Omer believes he faces a threat from Eritrea. In late December, he declared a six-month state of emergency in the state of North Kordofan and in Kassala, which borders Eritrea. Early in January hundreds of Sudanese troops together with military vehicles and tanks were reported passing through the town of Kassala en route to the Eritrean border. The manoeuvres were said to be designed to counter smuggling and human trafficking; this is hardly plausible, since the border region has been used for such practices for decades, with officials on both sides implicated in the trade.

Meanwhile, Ethiopia tries to mitigate the threats it faces from a resurgent Eritrea and its heavyweight allies. Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn met the Sudan Armed Forces Chief of General Staff, Lieutenant-General Emad el Din Mustafa Adawi, on 8 January. Workneh Gebeyehu, Ethiopia's Foreign Minister, has held meetings with the UAE's Minister of State for International Cooperation, Reem bint Ibrahim al Hashimy, the outcome of which is not known. Hailemariam also went to Cairo on 17 January to meet the Egyptian President; the only topic publicly revealed to have been under discussion was the GERD. At a joint press conference on 18 January, El Sisi declared his 'profound concern' at the deadlock in the tripartite technical committee (also involving Sudan) studying the impact of the GERD, while he and Hailemariam signed several memoranda of understanding on other issues. On 29 January, on the sidelines of the African Union summit, the leaders of Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan discussed ways of cooperating and pledged to find a peaceful and cooperative solution to the Nile dispute.

Somalia's President Mohamed Abdullah Mohamed 'Farmajo', despite his country's close ties to Turkey and Qatar, tries to maintain good relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which help to finance his government. However, when the UAE signed an agreement with Somaliland to open a military base in Berbera, Somalia still protested. And so far, Farmajo shows no sign of bowing to Saudi Arabian pressure to break Somalia's ties with Qatar.

What is apparent is that there is a new scramble for influence along the Red Sea. If the reports of Egyptian troop deployments to Assab are confirmed, then Cairo will have joined Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the Eritrean port. At the same time, Turkey is adding Sudan's Suakin to its base in Somalia and a possible base in Djibouti. Could Egyptian and Turkish forces be drawn into the Yemeni civil war on opposite sides? The Horn of Africa is entering a dangerous phase.


መሪሕነት ዞባ ሰሜን ኣሜሪካ ስ.ዲ.ህ.ኤ. ቀዳም ዕለት 3 የካቲት 2018 ስሩዕ ኣኼባኡ ኣካይዱ።

ኣጀንዳ ኣኼባ ሰልፍና ንምዕባይን ንምሕያልን እንታይ ክንገብር ኣሎና ዝብል ኮይኑ ነዚ መደብ’ዚ ንምትግባር ብነፍስውከፍ ቤት ጽሕፈት ዝቐረበ ናይ ስራሕ መደብ ብዕምቆት ዘትዩሉ። ናይ ሓድሕድ ምክብባርን ህድኣትን ዝሰፈኖ ቦኽሪ ኣኼባ ዞባ ሽማግለ፡ መሰረታት ዞባና ንምስፋሕን ቁጠባዊ ሓይሉ ከምኡ’ውን ምስ ኣብ ዞባና ዝኸይድ ምንቅስቓስ ደለይቲ ፍትሒ ዝምድናኡ ከደልድልን ናይ ስራሕ መደባት ኣጽዲቑ። ዝሓንጸጾ መደባት ኣብ ግብሪ ንምውዓል መሪሕነት ዞባ ሽማግለ ብዕቱብ ክሰርሕ ምዃኑ ኣስሚሩሉ።

ክንዕወት ኢና!

ውድቀት ንምልካዊ ስርዓት!

ክብርን ዘልኣለማዊ ዝኽርን ንስዉኣት ኤርትራ!

ቤት ጽሕፈት ዜናን ባህልን

ዞባ ሰሜን ኣሜሪካ ሰ.ድ.ህ.ኤ.

3 የካቲት 2018



4 February 2018

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused billionaire financier and philanthropist George Soros of funding the widespread public campaign against the Israeli government’s plan to deport thousands of African migrants and asylum-seekers.

Netanyahu made his remarks during a meeting of ministers from his Likud party, according to Israel’s Channel 10. Netanyahu was reportedly responding to Science Minister Ofir Akunis’s claim that foreign governments were behind the anti-deportation campaigns.

“George Soros is also funding the protests,” Netanyahu responded. He reportedly added that former U.S. president Barack Obama “deported two million infiltrators and they didn’t say anything.”

Soros’s foundations have funded many left-wing not-for-profits that the Israeli government considers anti-Israel, like Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem. Soros, who is Jewish, has been the subject of conspiracy theories that many consider anti-Semitic in his native Hungary as well as the United By

Read more:

Israel’s government hopes to deport tens of thousands of what it describes as economic migrants or illegal immigrant “infiltrators,” largely originating from repressive regimes like Sudan and Eritrea, to another African country.

A wide-ranging array of Israeli and Diaspora Jewish groups have harshly criticized the plan, including pilots from the national airline El Al, the Anti-Defamation League, the Reform and Conservative movements of Judaism and the stars of the popular Israeli sketch comedy show “Eretz Nehederet.”

Netanyahu’s comments about Soros were criticized by Tamar Zandberg, a member of Knesset from the left-wing Meretz party.

“The prime minister’s decision to divert the heat to George Soros should concern all of us,” Zandberg said. “Over the past year, Hungary has seen an anti-Semitic campaign that was called out by the Foreign Ministry and has sparked fear in all Hungarian Jews. Netanyahu’s decision to inflame matters surrounding the anti-Semitic campaign and to connect himself with it is a direct continuation of the Likud’s dangerous ties with extreme right-wing parties in Europe.”

Contact Aiden Pink at or on Twitter, @aidenpink

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Calais migrants: Five shot in mass brawl

Friday, 02 February 2018 20:52 Written by

A migrant receives medical assistance by rescue workers following clashes near the ferry port in Calais, northern France, 01 February 2018. Image copyright EPA Image caption A man gets medical help from rescue workers after clashes in Calais, northern France

At least five migrants have been shot during a mass brawl between Afghans and Eritreans in the French port city of Calais, local officials say.

A 37-year-old Afghan man is suspected of firing shots at a queue for food handouts. Four Eritreans aged between 16 to 18 are in a critical condition.

Hundreds of migrants have converged on the area in an attempt to cross the Channel to the UK.

A sprawling camp known as the "Jungle" was dismantled near Calais in 2016.

Interior Minister Gérard Collomb said the violence had reached a new level and accused gangs that try to smuggle migrants to the UK of instigating the violence.

This is the worst outbreak of violence between migrants in Calais for months, and the use of firearms is a worrying escalation of the tensions, the BBC's Hugh Schofield in Paris reports.

How did the violence unfold?

The cause is not yet clear but an initial fight on the city's southern outskirts broke out on Thursday afternoon, where migrants had been queuing for food handouts.

Around 100 Eritreans and some 30 Afghans were caught up in the violence, which lasted almost two hours after the shots were fired.

The four critically injured were shot in the neck, chest, abdomen and spine, AFP news agency reported.

A group of migrants carry sticks during clashes in Calais on 1 February 2018. Image copyright EPA Image caption A group of migrants pictured with sticks during the clashes

A second melee erupted shortly afterwards at an industrial site around 5km (three miles) away, when between 150 and 200 Eritreans armed with iron rods and sticks clashed with about 20 Afghans, the local prefecture said.

Later in the afternoon further violence broke out at a food distribution point in an area of Calais not far from the site of the old "Jungle" camp.

Security forces were sent to the area and there were no reports of incidents during the night.

In total, 22 people were injured, including some with stab wounds, AFP added.

Map showing the location of the fighting

Visiting Calais, Mr Collomb added: "There's been an escalation of violence that has become unbearable for both the people of Calais and the migrants".

The government would take control of food distribution, currently done by charities, with those groups working in association with authorities, he said.

Why are the migrants there?

Though the "Jungle" camp was demolished in 2016, hundreds of migrants are still living rough in the nearby woods, hoping to reach the UK. Many are young men.


Media captionViolence broke out near the old "Jungle" camp

Local charities put the number of such migrants living in Calais at around 800, while the authorities say there are between 550 and 600.

Mr Collomb urged migrants not to head to Calais if they wanted to try to get to the UK, saying their attempts from there - often trying to hide themselves in lorries - would be unsuccessful.

The Calais "Jungle" became the French symbol of the European migrant crisis, and some 7,000 people - most from the Middle East and Africa - were living there before the area was cleared.

Earlier this month, President Emmanuel Macron and UK Prime Minister Theresa May signed a treaty to speed up the processing of migrants in Calais.


Media captionThe migrants living where the Calais Jungle once stood

Mr Macron has said that France will not allow a new migrant camp to be set up in Calais, and French police have been accused of brutality by some activists.

He is expected to unveil a new migrant policy next month, which will include speeding up the application process for asylum seekers and faster removal of those who fail to be accepted.

Charities and some of the president's allies have accused the government of taking a hard line on immigration.